7
Sep 20

#13: Hey, must be the money!

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This is the mainstream hip-hop bracket, with a chunky three tracks each from the critical King and Queen of the genre in 2001, Jay-Z and Missy Elliott, and appearances from a host of other royals – Nelly, fresh off months at #1 with his Country Grammar LP; snarlers Ludacris and Mystikal; Outkast and Wu-Tang. Debutants too – the Timbaland-produced Bubba Sparxxx and kinda-conscious rappers City High.

It’s a big-hitting bracket, and it’s interesting to compare it to the hip-hop we looked at in 1990. Hip-Hop then was by no means new, but its claim to mainstream acceptance and the US media networks around it were still quite fresh – Yo! MTV Raps and The Source were less than 2 years old, for instance. 11 years on, even if rap still wasn’t the highest-selling genre in the US, its position at the centre of popular music was strong: this bracket is a sound in its pomp, during the long CD boom, with MCs celebrating the platinum-plated lifestyle their music has bought them.

No-one celebrated better than Jay-Z, whose sound on The Blueprint is expansive and expensive – the Jackson 5, who provide the chassis of “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)”, don’t come cheap. Jay-Z treats these top drawer beats in the manner born – his conversational, drawling flow is at its peak, with the same deceptively casual relationship to rhythm and arrangement as 50s Sinatra.

But Jay-Z is also an exception – most of the beats we meet here are built, not bought. The Blueprint throws producer Kanye West into pop’s mainstream, but for much of the year the productions people were listening for came from Timbaland and The Neptunes. The latter turn up here with an honestly magnificent beat – the jazzy, rubbery “Bouncin’ Back” for Mystikal – but Timbaland’s productions are the ones to watch in this bracket.

Two of them are for Missy Elliott – the two at the peak of their working partnership. (Missy’s third entry in this bracket is a Timbaland co-production). Never a tongue-twisting rapper, Missy’s main asset is her presence and her gift for a hook – though she also knows when to get out the way of one of her collaborator’s hooks, as on “Get Ur Freak On”, where her chorus is propping up the bhangra riff and her real work is dropping one-line phrase bombs throughout the verses. On the housey “4 My People” she takes charge of the beat, and on “One Minute Man” she gets to sing more, and play the straight woman to Ludacris’ wonderfully lubricious guest-verse. It’s a good set of choices that show her variety, though Timbaland’s other finest few minutes here aren’t Missy’s – Bubba Sparxxx’s “Ugly” is “Get Ur Freak On”’s speedfreak hillbilly cousin.

The pace of hip-hop meant it could react more rapidly than other genres to current events. Jay-Z’s The Blueprint was released on the day of the World Trade Center attacks. Within 2 months, OutKast had put out a track (“The Whole World”) referencing the mood and situation obliquely and Wu-Tang had released “Rules” which is… less oblique. The two groups had started at similar times, but where the Wu-Tang’s grimy New York sound had been epochal in the 90s, Outkast’s Atlanta scene had risen more slowly, and it was only in the few years prior to 2001 that it and they got world attention. That gradual regionalision of US rap is the other big story at work in this bracket.

POTENTIAL WINNER: The irrepressible “Get Ur Freak On” starts as at least joint-favourite with Kylie, and may even have the edge – it’ll be a case of which track retains its appeal most over repeated rounds.

BEST TRACK: “The flow of the century”, Jay-Z says at the start of “Izzo”, which is a bold claim to make 1 year in. But quite possibly defensible.

DARK HORSE: Bubba Sparxxx raps “Ugly” like it’s his one chance at any kind of happiness or success – there’s a desperate edge to his breakneck rapping which is memorable and very endearing.

DISCOVERY: Honestly I knew almost all of this – this is probably my personal peak engagement with contemporary hip-hop, plus it was crossing over to the UK charts as never before. But either I didn’t hear Jadakiss and Styles P’s “We Gonna Make It” or, er, I forgot it. It’s good! A slightly grittier, lower-budget take on the retro Blueprint sound with some strong rhymes. (But not as good as the famous stuff in this bracket.)

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